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Notre Dame Now Has Even More Reason To Play Tobias Merriweather, Eli Raridon and Holden Staes

The arrival of Drew Pyne at quarterback means there are even more reasons to play the talented - and bigger - young freshmen

It's very easy to sit behind my keyboard and advocate for this player getting in the game or that player getting in the game, so the one thing I promise to Irish Breakdown readers is that anytime I do so it will be well thought out and not reactionary.

It's not about emotion or recruiting rankings or even the justifiable reason for playing Notre Dame's talented freshman in order to not have it used against them on the recruiting trail moving forward, or the reality of possibly losing more players in this era of the one-time transfer exemption.

I'm sitting here once again advocating for Notre Dame making personnel changes on offense, and upping the ante a bit, because it's absolutely what Notre Dame must do in order to build its offense around quarterback Drew Pyne.

That means starting now, in today's install and tomorrow's first practice in advance of its matchup against North Carolina, the Notre Dame offensive staff absolutely must do whatever it takes to get freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather, freshman tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, and sophomore tight end Cane Berrong into the rotation on a regular basis.

A case could be made to go with the current lineup when Tyler Buchner was the quarterback due to his running ability, and the perception that Notre Dame would be a strong running team, but with Pyne at quarterback Notre Dame must realize the identity it thought it was going to have will not exist. At least not in a way to allow the Irish to run the table, something it should absolutely be focused on.

BUILDING AROUND PYNE

As much as the staff wants to convince us, and maybe themselves, that going with Pyne doesn't change the offense much compared to Buchner, but the reality is it does, and in a major way.

Buchner is a dynamic athlete that is a threat to hurt teams with his legs and ability to throw the ball downfield, at least based on what we saw in 2021. Buchner's unique skillset was capable of keeping team's honest, but as we saw against California, Pyne presents no such threat to teams.

Pyne is a small quarterback that once he gets comfortable should, in theory, be a quality decision maker that shows a relatively accurate football. But Pyne isn't a precision passer, he doesn't have a cannon for an arm and he's not really a running threat. We saw on Saturday he can move the chains with his legs and he has good pocket movement skills, but he's at his best when he can make decisive reads and he can get the ball out quickly.

As it stands right now, Notre Dame needs more weapons on the perimeter, and over the middle, that provide more dynamic ability and perhaps even more importantly, more size. 

I would imagine part of the reason junior Kevin Bauman was placed into the lineup as the No. 2 tight end was his experience and blocking ability, although the latter has not manifested through three games. Jayden Thomas is also a bigger player that fits into a run-oriented offense, but Thomas has struggled mightily to get open and gain any kind of separation. Thomas, at 6-1 1/2, is also the tallest of the current players in the wide receiver rotation.

With the way the offense is currently constructed it's going to have a very hard time creating big play opportunities. The lack of speed from players like Bauman, Thomas and to a degree Matt Salerno (it's more of a speed relative to his size issue), and the lack of playmaking ability from those three hinder the way the offense is currently constructed. The routes Tommy Rees is using don't fit the current personnel at quarterback or on the perimeter. He's calling plays that require athletes to win one-on-one, and the group we are seeing isn't that group.

Pyne isn't the guy athletically to fit with the current group, he needs to be a playmaker with his mind and decision making. That means the players on the field need to be those that can then be the big play weapons that fit the current route concepts, but also that take some of the pressure off Pyne.

That means continuing to go with Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles (and getting them to play better and using them more for their speed, which we haven't seen yet), but also adding in other weapons that bring more size and speed.

Notre Dame's best athletes on the perimeter that have the skills the team needs to fit what the offense needs to be are the guys we aren't currently seeing. 

That's the group I mentioned above (Merriweather, Raridon, Staes, Berrong) along with the running back duo we saw on Saturday, with Chris Tyree more of the focal point.

Here's the reality, the current group of players who have "earned the trust" of the Notre Dame coaches are part of an offense that ranks 115th in scoring offense (18.3 PPG), 114th in total offense (300.3 YPG) and 104th in yards per play (4.82 YPP).

Things need to change, and they need to change now.

THE CASE FOR TOBIAS MERRIWEATHER

No, Merriweather doesn't have the knowledge of the offense that the older players have, but that has to stop being the excuse the Irish coaches go to in order to keep playing Salerno and Thomas, while Merriweather continues to fall further and further behind due to the lack of reps in practice and games.

Simply put, he's not only too talented not to be on the field, he's the only player on the current wide receiver depth chart that fits the mold of what the team needs to support Pyne. A case could be made for sophomore Deion Colzie, but he needs to get healthy first.

Right now, Merriweather's combination of size (he's over 6-4), speed, route running skill and ball skills to add the kind of wide catch radius weapon that Pyne desperately needs on the perimeter. Pyne needs to have weapons on the field that have the skill that make it to where he doesn't always have to be super precise when he throws to, and he needs more weapons on the field not named Michael Mayer that can just throw it up to regardless of the matchup.

It's the "covered but not covered" type of matchup that you get when you have a weapon of Merriweather's length and talent.

Getting a weapon like Merriweather onto the field on a far more regular basis, and getting him and Pyne to connect every day in practice, is an absolute must. Maybe it doesn't immediately change things, but the more work he gets, the more reps he gets, the more targets he gets the better Merriweather will be, and once he gets comfortable, and Pyne gets comfortable with him, the offense will get much, much better.

The Notre Dame staff needs to force that issue .... now.

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That means stop putting all the pressure on Merriweather to "earn" playing time, and put that emphasis on the coaches to do whatever it takes to get him ready, get him out there and let him learn through playing.

Head coach Marcus Freeman finally spoke to that during the Monday press conference.

"Tobias is a guy that we wanted to play even more than we did,” Freeman said. “All of a sudden, when the game is close and the game’s on the line, you’re gonna play the people (who) right now, you trust the most."

I must admit, I rolled my eyes in disgust when Freeman made that statement, which sounded so much like what we heard the previous 12 years, but he followed it up with something far more encouraging, and simply put, something that is needed, and needed now.

“So what does that mean? Guess what, our coaches have to earn more trust in Tobias," continued Freeman. "So, we’ve got to be better coaches so that we can have more trust in Tobias and Tobias has to meet the coaches halfway and make sure he’s doing the exact things he needs to do in practice and then those reps in the game, that there is a trust factor that we know if Tobias is in there he’s going to get the job done, he’s going to do exactly what he’s supposed to do."

That's not exactly what I want to hear, but it's must, much better and closer to what needs to happen.

TIGHT END CHANGES ARE NEEDED

Mayer is the dude at tight end, there's no doubt about that, but there are three younger weapons that need more time there as well. Perhaps none are ready to be "the guy" in the number two spot, but between the three of them - Raridon, Staes and Berrong - they provide skills that Notre Dane needs, and that could help Pyne.

For one, Bauman hasn't been overly effective in the run game, and even thought it is limited reps, Raridon has been Notre Dame' most physical player and effective blocker at tight end.

Raridon is also a unique athlete that stands almost 6-7, and he can run, two traits that would be a huge benefit to Pyne. Staes is over 6-4 as well and Berrong is 6-3 1/2, but they can both really run and are legit pass game weapons.

This trio needs more action, immediately. I mean no disrespect to Bauman, but his skillset isn't a fit for what the offense needs now that Pyne is in at quarterback. 

At the end of the day, that's the key for the staff. Stop trying to be what you wanted to be, accept who you are and then put the personnel in place that allows you to be that type of team, and the talent that allows you to maximize your potential within that offense.

Maybe it does take a game or two to get them fully into the mix, but the process of making this happen, and for this group to become a far more involved part of the offense, needs to happen immediately.

It will pay huge dividends if they do in fact make this change.

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